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Champions elect?



Make room for champions elect

THE championship has started in earnest now and Saturday’s results informs us all, once again, that predicting winners at this time of the year is a difficult job. So pay little heed to what you hear and read when people discuss the chances of Mayo winning next week. A bounce of a ball and all that.
I went for Kerry and Donegal last weekend and when the first game obliged, the double looked a very probable one. Until Donegal choked as the finishing line appeared and allowed their inexperience to kill off their chances.
For the first time in the history of the GAA Ulster will not have a team in the semi-finals of the All-Ireland senior football championships. Don’t gloat - here in Connacht it has happened to us three times already and Laois might make that four pretty soon. But let’s deal with the Kerry win first; no doubt they will be delighted to represent the Ulster side of the house as September nears and the destination of Sam Maguire is discussed. Because just now, to my viewing of things, all bets are off.
Last weekend Kerry reminded all of us of their proud reputation and commitment to the best aspects of Gaelic football. Playing thrilling football they out-gunned a particularly good Armagh team, whose resilience and focus was expected to be too much for the fallen men from the Kingdom.
In the end all six starting forwards scored for the underdogs and the four substitutes all scored too, contributing a goal and three points to the mix! It was a superb game, a smashing contest and once or twice it appeared that Kerry were wobbling. Another key score from the northern champs and they might fold. We of course know this Kerry team of old and suffered at their hands in 2004.
Last Saturday, they looked better than those few short years ago and to my mind the race is now over - Kerry will not be beaten from this position and the rest are playing for second. Yes, Dublin will cause problems and Cork will be comfortable facing them. But there is a world of difference between nearly beating a team and actually beating them.
Where does Team Mayo 2006 stand in relation to all the forecasting? Next up is Laois and playing the under card of an All-Ireland hurling semi-final will give this match a somewhat strange context and setting.
There are two schools of thought as we prepare to face the reborn Leinster men: one, get this over with as soon as possible because Dublin would beat the pick of the two teams. Best to lose gallantly (lovely word that) and save the expense of a further journey and overnight in the capital; the second school argues we have a great chance this year and now that Armagh are out, the scene is populated with mediocre outfits. We are well fit for Laois and Dublin are an invention of the media; they’re paper thin when it comes to the crunch.
Mayo are used to this stage of the modern championship and this will be our fourth quarter-final in the six years since their introduction. Bad news: we have lost two of the three played so far but count the win over Tyrone as one of the great evenings of championship football. Earlier that day Armagh fell to Fermanagh. So, it is our first time to face a Leinster team since the launch in 2001.
Laois and Mayo play a very similar brand of football - open and fast with plenty of ball players and supporting runners. Both teams have a handful of excellent players and the balance is fairly decent too. Scoring is a major problem for the teams but the creation of chances is not. Some day one team will fall out of bed with their shooting boots on and a big team will pay the price.

Mayo suffering without the goodwill factor
IT is impossible to separate them at this stage of the week and a gut feeling tells me Laois might shade it. We do not know the line-out and the rumours of injuries are just that; unsure whether to believe them or not. I know a man who made arrangements today (Monday) to sneak into the Mayo ‘A’ versus Mayo ‘B’ trial game so that he might best decide whether to travel to Dublin on Sunday. It has come to that.
If you want to make a breakthrough, to really lift the tide you must get the county behind you. And there are many out there who will tell you this team is unloved by the public because it is not allowed get to know it. I am thinking here about revolutions that took place in Wexford and Clare when their own Castros decided enough was enough.
They painted their vision to a hopeful public and as the months progressed the beautiful colours began to make them believers. Better still, their teams embraced and engaged the dream also. Alas, I have no sense of those days with our gang. No sense that the county really cares, one way or the other. More than ever, the perception is that ‘them and us’ (management v county board/players versus county board/public versus county board) exists and in such an atmosphere only failure can result.
Is this the reality? I am not in Mayo as much as I once was and can only gauge the mood these days from the opinions of reliable sources. Naturally, I observe the optics during the build up and on match day - the buzz, the body language, how the team is ‘pulling’ and who is exercising authority and leadership both on and off the pitch. I am afraid it hardly bodes well for Sunday.
We look like ending up with a broken marriage - no trust and no love left. We see each other in the distance and hastily turn away so that the tension is avoided. It manifests itself in many ways: no team until close to throw in and no desire to build a relationship either; what opinion emerges scolds us for our negativity and the so the cycle continues. Club games fixed that lead to injury, one party wants the game in Dublin, and another wants it down the country.
Maybe it is the deep frustration we all feel and especially if you believe there is not a lot out there to beat if only the engine was purring. What school of thought are you in then? The first one? Then we are a negative race and don’t deserve a good county team. The second school? Good for you. But a closed door for training, no teams until throw-in and a coolness that sometimes threatens to freeze over. Bring back that loving feeling.
Last Saturday as Kerry roared to victory over Armagh it was evident that football means close to everything to this county. A big crowd travelled to lend support and when they found their voices you understood that Kerry players and their public have a connection that is almost unique in the game.
We too should travel in numbers and I hope we do. I cannot measure the mood but we normally travel in hope. That might be enough to sustain us this weekend but if we are not to travel in fear a few weeks later then a connection between the various parties is urgently needed.
So, you are not allowed to toss a coin to determine if you will travel or not. As Nike keep telling us: ‘Just Do It’. But do toss one to see who will win. It should be that close.

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